Tag Archives: Itly

Travel Thursday – More Itly

The rest of our time in Rome (at least, in the first part of our trip) was a series of highs and lows. By the third full day I was getting desperate for some protein, and after we experienced the Campo di Fiori market (way cool – I got some awesome photos, lost to the ether) we found a restaurant that had exactly what I needed – an “ensalata ricca” – fresh green salad with eggs, mozarella, tomatoes, tuna, all kinds of good stuff. Dan said that while watching me consume that salad he also saw my mood take a 180 degree turn for the better. MLE needs food, but she most especially needs good lean protein and not an abundance of carbs, to keep her blood sugar stable. It was a great lunch, though it cost more than I would have liked (he had pasta, and we split a chicken dish, and we had wine), and after my blood sugar and mood returned to normal stability, we wandered through the old Jewish Ghetto looking for the synagogue. We never did find it, but we did find these other cool old ruins just hanging out in the middle of the city. The rain got steadily heavier, and people disappeared indoors, so it felt like we had the whole city to ourselves.

We walked through the city passing major landmarks (the tridente, up the Spanish steps, the street of four fountains) to a place recommended by Simon; a church containing the bones of thousands of Capuchin monks which had been placed into interesting tableaux, and also along the walls and ceiling of the rooms. Some bones had even been made into chandeliers. The place didn’t charge but just requested donations, and we were out of the rain for a while while Dan drew some of the bones (specifically, a child’s bones holding a scythe and scales also made out of bones, with wings made out of bones). The rain didn’t let up at all as we walked north and east trying to find another cool church recommended in our guidebook. “Further up xyz street,” we came to realize, meant “a really long way up this street, far past where the maps in the book or any of the maps we have with us depict.” This was one of the annoying things about our Rough Guide Rome – if you want to visit some of the places they list, they don’t always have addresses and they list places that are not on any of the maps. We trudged through the rain getting more and more wet and more and more discouraged, as it grew darker and colder. Many of the sidewalks collected water to the point where my shoes and pants were soaked through. Eventually we bought some really overpriced cough drops (trying to buy something that would help Dan’s cough) and asked directions to the church of the pharmacist. “Another 800 meters,” he answered. We gave up and turned around, heading back toward the area shown on our map. It’s too difficult to navigate a strange city (especially one as old as Rome with streets as irregular and narrow) in the dark, in the rain, with no map. We never did make it to that church or the amazingly cool catacombs that supposedly lay beneath it.

I was really glad we were staying in that hotel that night. When we got back and unpacked everything from our daypacks and changed into dry clothes, Dan realized that his sketchbook had gotten pretty wet. He was really upset about it, but I suggested that he use the hairdryer in the bathroom to dry it out and it worked pretty well – the pages are still kind of wrinkly but none of the ink ran, so the book was still viable. My shoes took three days to dry, even with the help of the hair dryer; I was really glad I’d brought a second (though less comfortable walking on cobblestones) pair. The next morning we took advantage of the free breakfast offered by the hotel (something we didn’t realize was available before), and it was one of the best breakfast spreads I’d ever seen in a European hotel or hostel. There were multiple kinds of breads and rolls and pastries, meats and cheeses, nutella, jam, three kinds of cereal, yogurt, hardboiled eggs, and a machine that would make a variety of coffee, juice, and tea-related beverages. All for free! We waited around in our hotel room for most of the morning, hoping the rain would stop, and it did (eventually).

When we went into Rome, we realized it was Epiphany – the 12th day of Christmas, a holiday for Italians, so many things were closed. We spent some time wandering around the Trastavere neighborhood, eating some pretty good pizza and enjoying the sights. Eventually we meandered to another part of the city to find a gelato place famous for a particular gelato-based dessert called Death by Chocolate. It was worth every penny we paid, and we watched the Epiphany goings-on in the piazza with three fountains, a carnival for the holiday. There were booths selling witch dolls on strings, witch masks, and brooms.(While we saw plenty of Santas climbing buildings when we were in Rome, Italy’s tradition is for La Befana, the good witch, to bring toys to children on the eve of Epiphany as she flies around looking for the baby Jesus). There were booths selling all manner of candy and these enormous donuts. Small children were enjoying huge candied apples, and everyone was in a festive mood because it was a holiday and the rain had stopped. Italians were on holiday for one more day, and many of them were gathered in the typical tourist places. Dan stood drawing Trevi fountain while I watched tourists of all stripes, but mostly Italians, standing next to the fountain but facing away, tossing coins over their shoulders for luck and to ensure a return to Rome. When Dan was finished with his drawing, we tossed in a couple of coins ourselves.

We completed our tour of the city at Termini station where we bought our train tickets to Florence and then found a suggested restaurant in our guidebook near the Coliseum. That meal was probably the best we had in Rome; I had a fantastic minestrone soup and Dan had a homemade linguine bolognese. We split a piece of lasagne that was to die for; perfect melting layers of fresh pasta, cheese, and a sauce so rich and flavorful yet light that put to shame every lasagne either of us had ever experienced. It was quite warm inside, as they had a pizza oven going and a guy efficiently rolling out and tossing dough, spreading with sauce and fresh mozzarella, and adding toppings as necessary. Each pizza was a work of art. The service left quite a bit to be desired, and the tiramisu was just okay, but that lasagne – oh!

Our last free hotel breakfast was equally as good, and we packed and checked out of our hotel, took the train into the city and checked into our hostel (dorm beds were 8 euro each that night, far less than before the holiday). After our luggage had been squared away, we set out to do more exploration of the city, heading back to the San Lorenzo area, seeing friendly stray cats all over the place in the cemetary we’d tried to see a few days before (the church, alas, was not open). It was a beautiful and moving cemetary, and very interesting to see the variety of gravesites, tombs, and headstones – in one area, it was set up almost like a military cemetary, with the graves of soldiers who died in World War Two. Other parts of the cemetary reminded me quite a bit of the Catholic cemetary in Louisville we visited with EEK when we were there in July.

After the cemetary, we found lunch in a restaurant nearby, which turned out to be very good. I was feeling mighty poorly at this point and we split a liter of real sugar Coke that made my throat far less painful. The tiramisu we shared for dessert was what I’d been waiting over seven years to have again – it was phenomenally good. We hung out by the old city wall a while so Dan could draw and I made him do some awesome madlibs my cousin had given me for Christmas. We went back to our hostel, which had one of the weirdest setups I’d ever seen, and were shown to our room – in a completely different building, up and through a courtyard in an apartment with a sign on the door that said “pink palace.” There were only three beds in our room, and nobody stayed in the third bed, so we had the room to ourselves. Neither of us felt very well, so we relaxed for a while before going out and exploring a nearby church, the Santa Maria Nuovo. While we didn’t have to pay to get in, there was a machine in which one could deposit euro coins in order to illuminate various artwork around the inside of the church. Someone chose to light up a particularly beautiful mosaic while we were exploring, for which I was very glad. It was a thoroughly lovely church and felt much more spiritual and holy than St. Peter’s Basilica had, as it wasn’t a series of homages to popes but instead just full of beauty dedicated to God.

One of the reasons we’d chosen to stay at this particular hostel, aside from its proximity to Termini station, was that they offered “free dinner and free breakfast.” There wasn’t any common area in the hostel, just a little vestibule where the computer and intake area were, and some rooms full of bunk beds. I wondered whether there was another room somewhere. When we arrived for “free dinner” we found that no, in fact, there was no other room, and the little ten by five area was stuffed to the gills with young backpacker types, all drinking “free wine” (horrible rotgut) and holding flimsy thin plastic bowls. There was no room for us, so we were instructed to sit on someone’s bed in one of the dorm rooms by ourselves. Eventually we were served some sort of broccoli-ish soup, which tasted OK but was terribly hot and impossible to hold while standing/sitting. Several people spilled. After the soup, there was a serving of the worst pasta I’ve ever eaten, with a watery pink sauce, carrots, peas, and potatoes all mixed in. I ate three bites and promptly threw it away having an acute case of indigestion from the rotgut and the soup. We couldn’t really socialize with anyone, since there was no room in the vestibule and nobody else in the room with us, so we just left and fell asleep super early wondering what surprises awaited us at “free breakfast.”

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Travel Thursday: Oh yeah, we went to Italy!

Rome Part One – Sorry there aren’t any pictures 😦

We landed in Rome after two harrowing plane changes (luckily, we’d carried on all our baggage) and many many hours without sleep. According to our Rough Guide (more on this book later), we had the option of taking a cab or taking an 11euro train ride into the city from the airport. Luckily, we figured out that we could take a less expensive train to a different station and transfer to the metro line we needed to get to our hotel. So we did that instead.

We lucked out on a great hotel deal for Rome – $45 US/night for 5 nights, 3star hotel, which was cheaper than two hostel dorm beds would have been, and we had our own room with bathroom. It was not actually in Rome, but to the southeast of the city in a little town called Ostia Antica. We got to the Ostia metro stop and crossed the highway, to discover that it was a Really Little Town. Luckily, our hotel was on the one main street, so we started walking. And walking. There was no sidewalk for at least half of it, and the cars were going a good 40MPH along the street. We kind of feared for our lives and I had this mental picture of us as turtles on our backs in the middle of this busy road (we each had a larger backpack and smaller daypack, so wore the big one on our back and the small on our front). When we arrived at the hotel and asked if there was a back-road way to walk there from the station, the clerk looked at us in horror and told us to take the bus. Luckily, the bus system and metro system in the general Rome area are linked up, so one ticket is good on either system for 75 minutes. We decided not to try to walk between the hotel and the metro stop again, just because we preferred not to end up being roadkill.

Our hotel room was very nice, and we ended up taking a little nap, which turned into sleeping from 3:30 PM until about 6 the next morning. Ahhhh.

But of course, when we woke up I was starving. We didn’t have much food with us, so we headed out for the metro and into Rome. Simon of A Girl and a Boy had loaned us a book full of walking tours of Rome, so we took the metro to Termini station (kind of a central point) and walked to where one of the tours started, grabbing some sandwiches in a little bar along the way. A note on food in Italy: you will see a lot of signs that say Bar. Mostly they sell a variety of things, including premade sandwiches/panini, cigarettes and candy, and booze and coffee. People eat standing up, and the ones that have tables, you have to pay extra in order to sit. Word to the wise.

Anyhow, we spent the first few hours taking one of the walking tours Simon had recommended (down Via Nazionale, around some ruins, up through the out-of-place Vittorio monument and down through the Roman Forum and around the Coliseum). Along the way, we found a grocery store and stopped in to provision ourselves. We found this was an economical way to eat in China, and it proved to be even more economical in Italy, since it was pretty much the only way we could eat three meals a day and not spend a ton of money (even take-away sandwiches and pizza are still 3-4 euro each, which translated to 4.50-6.00 US each – when it’s two people, that can add up). So anyhow, the walking tour was really cool as it explained things about the buildings we were passing. Dan really enjoyed the ruins and the forum and walking around the Coliseum, and I really enjoyed getting to see them again, and sharing the experience with him.

For me, the Roman Forum is one of the most interesting things in Rome. It’s fully amazing to me that this incredibly old thing, part of an ancient bit of Western Civilization, is just smack dab in the middle of the city of Rome. After more than 2000 years, it’s still there – nobody has destroyed it, and thousands of people every year walk through the same pathways that the Roman hoi polloi walked through millenia ago. Nutty.

We decided not to stand in line/pay to tour the inside of the coliseum, but instead to walk around it and peek into the parts on the far side where you don’t see many other tourists. Dan told me some interesting historical bits about the coliseum, and then we wandered over to the Arch of Constantine (more historical bits) and then attempted to climb the Palatine hill, where we got stopped in our tracks because we went the wrong way, and then it turned out you had to pay a bunch of money to get in (and it mostly just looked like a nice park) so we opted out.

One of the really cool things about Rome is that despite it being a really big city, most of the stuff you might wish to see as a tourist is within an easily walkable distance. We walked from the Paletine hill up to the Pantheon area and grabbed some take-away pizza (I think the best pizza we had in Rome, since it was hot and fresh from the oven, mmmm!), then went inside the Pantheon and marveled. I also find the Pantheon to be amazingly cool, even without knowing what an architectural feat it was at the time. Dan decided to draw the Pantheon, so we sat there in the afternoon chill while lots of tourists milled around and people trying to sell noisy things to tourists milled around after them.

We wandered by Trevi Fountain (more tourists, mostly Italian) on our way back to Termini station, and we looked for a place to go online to email our families and let them know we weren’t dead. It took a while, since it was the 3rd of January and many places were still closed for the holidays, but we found one and then metro’d back to our hotel. We ate dinner in our hotel restaurant – it was decent and not terribly expensive – and then fell asleep pretty early after watching some so-awful-it’s-funny Italian television and drinking boxed red wine (we didn’t have a corkscrew).

The next day we were up pretty early and in the line for the Vatican Museum before it opened, eating our breakfast while we waited. It wasn’t terribly cold (though I’d prepared by wearing warm tights under my pants) and the tourist-pushers were attempting to sell scarves and gloves to those who weren’t wearing them. The line moved pretty quickly once the museum opened, and I’m pretty sure most of the people in line were Italian tourists (as all of Italy seems to be on vacation until Epiphany, January 6). If one planned a trip to Rome during high tourist season (read: summer) and one had specific time constraints, it might make sense to join a tour group, as that lets you jump the line. However, it’s a really high price (I think I heard 90 euro?), so for people who have more time than money it really doesn’t make sense.

The Vatican Museum was one of the things I skipped during my first trip to Rome, reasoning that I’d be back someday – and I was right. In a way, the museum is completely overwhelming, much like the Louvre, but in a way it’s not difficult to see only the things you really want to see and go quickly through the things you don’t care as much about. However, if you get there when the museum opens and you’re trying to navigate between throngs of tour groups, it’s a bit more difficult to actually see things you’re trying to see. They have the museum set up in such a way that it is very difficult to backtrack, though I suppose if you were really determined you might accomplish it.

The most impressive thing about the Vatican Museum is that every single surface in the place is beautiful. No wall, ceiling, or floor is ungilded or unpainted or undecorated. In fact, it can be somewhat overwhelming and I ended up a little bit overstimulated by how much beauty was there. We both really enjoyed the Raphael rooms (Dan especially, since he’d studied so many of the works in his Art History classes – one of the paintings made his jaw drop and he just kind of marveled at it for about 10 minutes) and the Sistine Chapel, which is in some ways amazingly impressive and in other ways hard to be suitably impressed by, since the ceiling is so far from the floor. And it’s packed full of people all the time, and the guards and intercom are constantly telling people to be quiet and not take photos, so the atmosphere of reverence they’re going for doesn’t quite seem to happen.

I would just like to note here that it is totally awesome to travel with someone who enjoys art and is more knowledgable about it than I am. It was like having my very own art tour guide, and I appreciated things a lot more when Dan told me about them.

We sent some postcards from the Vatican Museum, which was fun because Vatican City, being sovereign, has its own postal system and its own stamps. Apparently it also has its own euro coins, but we didn’t check to see if we got any of them until it was too late.

After the museum, we wandered over to St. Peter’s Basilica. When I was in Rome back in 2000, you could just wander in to the church and go wherever you felt like going within, but now you have to stand in a security line to make sure you aren’t bringing in knives, and they have the inside set up so you can only walk around the perimeter. Or maybe that part was just because of when we were there, since they were setting up for the big Epiphany service. The Basilica would be much more impressive from the outside if there wasn’t this enormous ugly facade tacked on to the front, and the inside is more a series of monuments to popes than a place of worship (to this non-Catholic, anyhow). But it, too, is adorned with beauty on all surfaces, and they had a mass or two going on while we were inside (sung in Latin, of course). And looking up is quite a celestial experience.

The one thing that really disappointed me about this particular visit to Vatican City was the dearth of nuns. On my previous trip, one of my favorite things about Rome (and the Vatican in particular) was how many different kinds of nuns I saw. This time, there were some nuns, but not nearly the amount or variety I’d been expecting. I guess they all make their pilgrimages in the summer just like everyone else.

After a lunch of uninspiring takeaway pizza (from a place recommended in the book) we walked across the city, up the Spanish Steps, and over and around the back side of the Termini station to a student neighborhood called San Lorenzo. I wanted to see a particular church in a cemetary in this area, but though it was described in detail it wasn’t on any of the maps in the book, and then it started to get dark, so we kind of gave up. We had our first gelato of the trip at a chain place called Red Ice (still fantastically yummy, and not that expensive!) while we figured out what to do.

Because here is another downside to traveling in Italy in the winter: it gets dark pretty early, around 4:30 PM. And Rome is very much old-fashioned still when it comes to the hours of shops and restaurants. Pretty much all shops/restaurants/etc. close from about 3 PM to about 7 PM, and in most places it costs money to go into someplace that is open to sit down with your gelato or espresso or whatever. In the summer, this would not be an issue, as it would be lovely to stroll around in a park or something since it would still be light out and warm. In January, it is cold and dark. We thought about waiting around somewhere until we could find an open restaurant for dinner, but I was totally exhausted at that point (still dealing with jet lag) so we took the metro back to Ostia and decided to try to find a place to eat dinner there.

There was no place (we could find) to eat dinner in Ostia Antica. There’s a small town with a post office and a butcher shop and a fruit stand and a few other little shops, but noplace we could find that was open and serving food in the evening. So we started to walk back toward our hotel, only we tried to go what we thought was the back way. We ended up on this wild goose chase, spending over an hour trudging through neighborhoods with unpaved streets, dogs barking at us, searching in vain for a place to eat (and then, eventually, for our hotel). Turns out that going the back way was an even worse idea than just walking straight to the hotel from the train station, but eventually we saw the blue neon HOTEL sign through the foggy mist and, completely exhausted beyond measure, we gave up and got horrible pizza and grappa at the hotel bar. Seriously, it was probably the worst pizza I ever ate, and man, we were in ITALY! There was no excuse for how wretched it was. At least it was food.

No Foto

We’re back in the Bay Area after one two-hour flight and one eleven-hour flight. And a solid 7 hours of sleep in QIR’s bed (thanks for the bed, darlin!)

So, yes, we went to Italy and I will have many stories to tell. However, I will have no photos to show you. I lost my camera on a train between Siena and Empoli, and unfortunately neither the kind folks at the Florence train station lost and found nor the ones at the Pisa lost and found were able to give me good news, that someone had turned my camera in. So I have no photos from the trip. Dan took about eight with his film SLR, but he doesn’t know if they’ll even turn out because it turned out the film he bought was expired. So we’ll see.

I would have rather lost anything else I had with me, including my passport and my new ipod, than my camera. But it was the camera, a gift Dan gave me for Christmas a few years ago, a gift that made me cry at the time and that I’ve used all the time since, that is gone. No foto*.

Also, we were both sick (he, the entire time, me, for about half the time). Also, it rained nearly every day. And Dan fell down some stairs.

But we still had a good time, for the most part, despite all the problems. I will be writing about the trip in detail, probably, but the hundreds of pictures I had to play around with and share with the internets are lost and gone forever, and I’ll have to rely on my power of descriptive language rather than be able to show you all the awesome things we saw.

Hello again, internets, I’ve missed you.

* in reference to many sights we saw, including Michelangelo’s David, where you weren’t allowed to take pictures (even though last time I was in Italy, it was just “no flash”. Guess it’s really important that they sell a lot of postcards.

It’s the end of the year as we know it and I feel fine

Wow – it’s been a long time since I wrote anything. Um, hi? Hey, it’s the end of 2007! Woohoo! 2007 has been a fantastic year for us – we got engaged, I bought a car, we went on some road trips, we planned a wedding (mostly), and we’re spending the last few hours of 2007 organizing our stuff for the trip to Italy. Which starts tomorrow! Hooray!

Christmas was interesting, and we spent this past weekend with Leah and Simon (thanks again for the wonderful hospitality, guys!) We’ve hung out with QIR, Guatemalaholla and the lovely Katherine, and had dinner with Sara and Ron. I tried on my dress, we checked off everything on the “must do” wedding list, and we had our engagement photos taken (luckily, I asked my younger sister about the makeup issue and she had some excellent suggestions, which I took, and they worked out very well. More about that another time.) Dan gave me an ipod nano for Christmas which I am very excited about using on the aeroplane tomorrow. Mostly I am really excited that we get to spend two weeks in Italy eating yummy food and walking all the time, and when I come back I’ll have a good 9 weeks of gymming before I have to fit into my dress again. And then – we get married! For those of you who care about such things, it’s t-minus 3 months and counting. We hope to have invitations out within a week after we get back. But you know, I’m just not going to stress about wedding stuff while we’re in Italy, because I’d much rather focus on having a great time. Thanks to a lucky connection, we’re spending our last night in Rome (before we fly home) staying in a super-fancy hotel and we’re paying about a 5th of what the room would normally cost.

I’m going to try to blog once or twice while we’re gone, but no promises. There will be plenty of stories and photos to come, however.

Happy 2008, everybody!